According to the gospels, Peter denied knowing Jesus three times after Jesus’s arrest before His crucifixion. On the third occasion, as the rooster crowed, Jesus turned and looked at Peter [Luke 22:61]. That look reminded Peter that Jesus had said to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” After that, Peter broke down and wept bitterly. He was ladened with remorse for letting down his Friend and Lord. As I reflected on this passage, a question arose in my mind; “what was the look?”
What did Peter see in Jesus’s eyes? Was it anger, disappointment or condemnation? I believe it was a look that communicated love. I think that’s why it was such a heart-wrenching experience for Peter because he would have seen perfect love in the eyes of his Master. God is love, and if we could see His face, we would encounter a vision of love unrivalled by anything this world can offer. In some ways, I think seeing the face of Jesus just as he denied knowing Him for the third time deepened Peter’s remorse. Matthew records that Judas also had a change of heart after betraying Jesus. He went to the authorities and returned the blood money, then hung himself [Matthew 27:3-10]. I believe both men felt deep remorse for their actions, but sadly, their stories ended differently.
The last chapter of John’s Gospel begins with an account of one of the occasions Jesus revealed Himself to His disciples after His resurrection. On this particular day, Peter had decided to go fishing, and the other disciples chose to go with him. Interestingly, Peter had gone back to his trade despite knowing Jesus had risen from the dead. Could it be that he had surmised that he had nothing further to offer Jesus because of the events in the courtyard? Scripture doesn’t say, but if I were in Peter’s shoes, I would have felt shame for abandoning and denying I knew my Friend in His darkest hour. And also for doubting who He was and what He said. So, I can understand him feeling worthless and believing Jesus had no further need of him.
As the chapter unfolds, Jesus performs a familiar miracle and prepares breakfast for His disciples. After breakfast, Jesus turned His attention to Peter, and one of the most touching scenes in the Bible ensues. Jesus asks Peter: “do you love Me more than these?” Presumably, Jesus was referring to the other disciples present by “these”, and Peter responds: “Yes Lord, You know I love You”. Our English translation of the Greek doesn’t quite do justice to this exchange. The word Jesus uses for love is “agapao”, which is the highest form of love, the love God has for us. The word Peter uses for love is “phileo”, which is the kind of love between acquaintances.
I suspect Peter couldn’t bring himself to use the word “agapao” to describe his love for Jesus. How could you claim to have the highest form of love for someone you denied knowing, especially after you swore that you wouldn’t deny Him even under threat of death [Matthew 26:35]? A second time, Jesus poses the same question using “agapao”, and again, Peter responds with “phileo”. Then, Jesus poses the same question a third time but opts to use “phileo”, not “agapao”. For me, these exchanges show a man haunted by his past and Jesus stooping to meet him in the mire. Rather than scold Peter for not loving Him enough, Jesus reassures him that where he’s at is OK and proceeds to hand over His flock to Peter. To me, Jesus was saying to Peter, put aside your guilt because not only do I not condemn you, I have much use of you. What an act of restoration!
You know how Peter felt after denying Jesus if you’ve ever blown it. His guilt would probably have compounded because he didn’t get an opportunity to tell Jesus how sorry he was before He died. Peter would have been overwhelmed with guilt and shame. The weight of such an experience is crushing. Even an innocent look from a stranger leaves you feeling dirty because of how you see yourself. That’s just where the devil wants us. He’ll do everything to amplify the destructive voices in your head that condemn you. If Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, I have little doubt that Peter would have gone the way of Judas.
Thanks be to God because that’s not how Peter’s story ended. The tomb is empty. Jesus rose from the dead and restored Peter. He commissioned Peter and entrusted him with the gospel to the Jews [Galatians 2:7-8]. Peter preached the first Christian sermon at Pentecost [Acts 2], performed the first recorded miracle after the resurrection [Acts 3], stood boldly before the Jewish ruling council to preach about Jesus [Acts 4] and took the gospel to the first Gentiles to receive the Holy Spirit [Acts 10]. God used Peter to accomplish many other things in the early Church, including authoring two of the epistles in the New Testament.
Peter’s story means there’s hope for all of us regardless of our failings and shortcomings. The resurrection of Jesus means that our stories can also have happy endings. Easter means we don’t have to wallow in guilt and shame anymore because as far as the east is from the west, so far has Jesus removed our transgressions [Psalm 103:12]. Our God is a restorer [Psalm 23:3]. He still has use for you and me [Ephesians 2:8-10], so we mustn’t despair and discount ourselves from serving His purposes. Irrespective of how unworthy you may feel, the risen Jesus says today: “Let’s try again”. Will you accept His offer?